Nanette Fabray, Star of TV and Stage Comedies, Dies at 97

Actress and Broadway star Nanette Fabray, who is remembered for her multi-Emmy Award-winning performances on the variety series “Caesar’s Hour” in the 1950’s and as the mother on CBS comedies “One Day at a Time” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” died Thursday at her home in Palos Verdes Estates, her son, Dr. Jamie MacDougall, told The Associated Press. He said the cause was old age.

Nanette Fabray began her career at age three performing in vaudeville and became a musical theatre actress during the 1940s and 1950s, winning a Tony Award in 1949 for her performance in Love Life.

In the mid-1950s, she served as Sid Caesar’s comedic partner on Caesar’s Hour, for which she won three Emmy Awards, as well as co-starring with Fred Astaire in the film musical The Band Wagon.

From 1979 to 1984, she appeared as Katherine Romano on the TV series One Day at a Time.

Fabray overcame a significant hearing impairment and was a long-time advocate for the rights of the deaf and hard of hearing. Her honors representing the handicapped include the President’s Distinguished Service Award and the Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award.

Early life

Fabray was born Ruby Bernadette Nanette Fabares on October 27, 1920, in San Diego, to Lily Agnes (McGovern), a housewife, and Raoul Bernard Fabares, a train conductor. The family resided in Los Angeles, and Fabray’s mother was instrumental in getting her daughter involved in show business as a child.

At a young age, she studied tap dance with, among others, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. She made her professional stage debut as “Miss New Years Eve 1923” at the Million Dollar Theater at the age of three. She spent much of her childhood appearing in vaudeville productions as a dancer and singer. She appeared with stars such as Ben Turpin.

Fabray’s parents divorced when she was nine, but they continued living together for financial reasons. During the Great Depression, her mother turned their home into a boarding house, which Fabray and her siblings helped run.

In her early teenage years, Fabray attended the Max Reinhardt School of the Theatre on a scholarship. She then attended Hollywood High School, where she graduated in 1939. She entered Los Angeles Junior College in the fall of 1939 but withdrew a few months later. She had always had difficulty in school due to an undiagnosed hearing impairment, which made learning difficult. She eventually was diagnosed with a hearing loss in her twenties after an acting teacher encouraged her to get her hearing tested. Fabray said of the experience, “It was a revelation to me. All these years I had thought I was stupid, but in reality, I just had a hearing problem.”

Career

Theatre

At the age of 19, Fabray made her feature film debut as one of Bette Davis’s ladies-in-waiting in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939). She appeared in two additional motion pictures that year for Warner Brothers, The Monroe Doctrine and A Child Is Born but was not signed to a long-term studio contract.

She next appeared in the stage production Meet the People in Los Angeles in 1940, which then toured the United States in 1940–1941. In the show, she sang the opera aria “Caro nome” from Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto while tap dancing.

During the show’s New York run, Fabray was invited to perform the “Caro nome” number for a benefit at Madison Square Garden with Eleanor Roosevelt as the main speaker. Ed Sullivan was the Master of Ceremonies for the event and the famed host, reading a cue card, mispronounced her name as “Nanette Fa-bare-ass.” After this embarrassing faux pas, the actress changed the spelling of her name from Fabares to Fabray.

Artur Rodzinski, the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, saw Fabray’s performance in Meet the People and offered to sponsor operatic vocal training for her at the Juilliard School. She studied opera at Juilliard with Lucia Dunham during the latter half of 1941 while performing in her first Broadway musical, Cole Porter’s Let’s Face It!, with Danny Kaye and Eve Arden.

She decided that she preferred musical theatre over opera and withdrew from the school after five months. She became a successful musical theatre actress in New York during the 1940s and early 1950s, starring in such productions as By Jupiter (1942), My Dear Public (1943), Jackpot (1944), Bloomer Girl (1946), High Button Shoes (1947), Arms and the Girl (1950), and Make a Wish (1951).

In 1949, she won the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of Susan Cooper in the Kurt Weill/Alan Jay Lerner musical Love Life. She received a Tony nomination for her role as Nell Henderson in 1963 for Mr. President 1963 after an eleven-year absence from the New York stage.

Fabray continued to tour in musicals for many years, appearing in such shows as Wonderful Town and No No Nanette.

Television and film

Nanette Fabray & Dan Blocker in Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County (1970) Universal Pictures

In the mid-1940s, Fabray worked regularly for NBC on a variety of programs in the Los Angeles area.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, she made her first high-profile national television appearances performing on a number of variety programs such as The Ed Sullivan Show, Texaco Star Theater, and The Arthur Murray Party.

She also appeared on Your Show of Shows as a guest star opposite Sid Caesar. She appeared as a regular on Caesar’s Hour from 1954 to 1956, winning three Emmys.

Fabray left the show after a misunderstanding when her business manager, unbeknownst to her, made unreasonable demands for her third season contract. Fabray and Caesar did not reconcile until years later.

In 1961, Fabray starred in 26 episodes of Westinghouse Playhouse, a half-hour sitcom series that also was known as The Nanette Fabray Show and Yes, Yes Nanette.

Fabray appeared as the mother of the main character on several television series such as One Day at a Time, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Coach, where she played mother to real-life niece Shelley Fabares. Like her aunt, Shelley Fabares also appeared on One Day at a Time.

Fabray made 13 guest appearances on The Carol Burnett Show. She performed on multiple episodes of The Dean Martin Show, The Hollywood Palace, Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall and The Andy Williams Show. She was a panelist on 230 episodes of the long-running game show The Hollywood Squares as well as a mystery guest on What’s My Line?

She appeared in guest-starring acting roles on Burke’s Law, Love, American Style, Maude, The Love Boat and Murder, She Wrote. On the PBS program Pioneers of Television: Sitcoms, Mary Tyler Moore credited Fabray with inspiring her trademark comedic crying technique.

In 1953, Fabray played her best-known screen role as a Betty Comden-like playwright in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer musical The Band Wagon with Fred Astaire and Jack Buchanan. The film featured Fabray, Astaire, and Buchanan performing the classic musical number “Triplets”, which was included in That’s Entertainment, Part II. Additional film credits include The Subterraneans (1960), The Happy Ending (1969), Harper Valley PTA (1978), Amy (1981), and Teresa’s Tattoo (1994).

Fabray’s most recent work was in 2007, when she appeared in The Damsel Dialogues, an original revue by composer Dick DeBenedictis, with direction/choreography by Miriam Nelson. The show, which was performed at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks, California, focused on women’s issues with life, love, loss, and the workplace.

Personal life and death

Newlyweds Nanette Fabray and husband Ranald MacDougall

Fabray’s first husband, David Tebet, was a vice president of NBC. Her second husband was screenwriter Ranald MacDougall, who numbered Mildred Pierce and Cleopatra among his credits, and who, in the early 1970s, served as president of the Writers Guild of America. The couple was married from 1957 until his death in 1973.

Nanette Fabray and son Jamie MacDougall

They had one child: Jamie MacDougall. She was a resident of Pacific Palisades, California; and is the aunt of singer/actress Shelley Fabares. Her niece’s 1984 wedding to actor Mike Farrell was at her home. Fabray was associated with Ronald Reagan’s campaign for the governorship of California in 1966.

Nanette Fabray and husband screenwriter Ranald MacDougall depart for their honeymoon. (1957)

She was hospitalized for almost two weeks after being knocked unconscious by a falling pipe backstage during a broadcast of Caesar’s Hour in 1955.

In 2001, she wrote to advice columnist Dear Abby to decry the loud background music played on television programs.

Fabray died on February 22, 2018, at her home in Palos Verdes, California, at the age of 97.

Honors

Nanette Fabray has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She was awarded the President’s Distinguished Service Award and the Eleanor Roosevelt Humanitarian Award for her long efforts on behalf of the hearing impaired.

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